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The Death-Throes of Nationalism

John Newton reviews

Kin of Place, by C.K. Stead

Auckland University Press, 386 pp., ISBN 1869402723, NZ$39.95

This piece is 6,000 words or about twelve printed pages long.
It first appeared in the New Zealand magazine Landfall, a literary quarterly founded in 1947 by Charles Brasch. The current editor is Justin Paton:
University of Otago Press, 56 Union Street, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand

Endnotes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

C.K.Stead book cover This latest book of essays from the distinguished New Zealand critic, poet and novelist C.K. Stead overlaps extensively with his first New Zealand collection, In the Glass Case (1981). In fact half of its twenty-eight pieces are reprinted from that book. To these are added five more from Answering to the Language (1989), while the uncollected essays consist of seven which are brand-new, and two substantially new ones which expand on fragments from earlier surveys. The sense of continuity, though, is stronger even than these numbers would indicate. Stead’s critical values and his interpretative procedures have changed little during the course of his career, as has the overview of New Zealand writing that he fashions with them.
      Of the new essays, a couple are likely to stir up conversation (a critique of Lauris Edmond, which I’ll come back to shortly, and an equivocal endorsement of Elizabeth Knox), while posthumous fly-overs of Allen Curnow and Kendrick Smithyman earn their place as supplements to a long negotiation with Kiwi (New Zealand) modernism. However, Stead’s family narrative of New Zealand literature was already clear, in outline, but also in substance, by 1981. Even with the loss of the explicit survey articles, which are excluded from this volume in favour of single-author studies — and even, unlikely as this may seem, with the inclusion of troublesome mid-Eighties essays on Keri Hulme and Witi Ihimaera — Kin of Place scarcely falters in reiterating that established account.

Photo of C.K. Stead       Yet as Ken Ruthven once reminded Stead, you can’t step into the same river twice.[1] If in one sense, that is, nothing has changed, and the critic still goes about his business as usual, in another, which takes account of his career, of his audience, and of the kinds of recognition that readers now bring to the Stead brand, the place from which he speaks to us is changed utterly. The author of In the Glass Case was best known as a critic, locally at least, for the magisterial 1979 address ‘From Wystan to Carlos’ (the one significant essay from that volume not reprinted in the current one).

      Here the respected, reputedly ‘academic’ poet, the Professor of New Zealand Literature, and the imposingly credentialled scholar of British modernist poetics, combined (‘like / an All Black front row — / unstoppable!’[2] ) in a performance which struck many readers of the time as, not just imposing or even intimidating, but overbearingly theoretical.[3] For the critic in this ebullient mood, there were the quick and the dead:

If one looks at developments in the arts from an historical perspective it does seem there is a certain flow of the tide. You can choose to swim against it if you want to, and you may swim brilliantly. What you can’t do is turn it back. It’s conceivable, for example, that someone might have written polished satiric couplets in the manner of Pope after 1790, but it’s not conceivable that by doing so he would have made any appreciable difference to the onset of the Romantic Movement. He would have been swimming against the tide of literary history.[4]

The irony will not be lost on any watcher of Stead’s career. But what perhaps hasn’t been fully appreciated — and for me this has been the thing to emerge most clearly from Kin of Place — is that the Stead who then finds himself ‘Arguing with the Zeitgeist’ (as Answering to the Language puts it)[5] is not some new, startling aberration of the mid-Eighties, but is already ‘swimming against the tide’ at the height of his academic influence in the late Seventies.
      Then a stellar academic, prestigiously ensconced in his Chair in the Auckland English Department, and clearly the country’s most admired literary critic, the author of In the Glass Case was also known as someone of orthodox liberal convictions. The best-known photograph of Stead, for example, is almost certainly the one which appears in Bill Oliver’s 1983 Baxter biography, addressing a Vietnam demonstration, his frame contorted with activist zeal. In fact 1981 saw the climax of this phase of his political career, when Stead was arrested on the pitch at Hamilton.[6] He has referred to this experience on a number of occasions, proud to have been there, understandably enough, at one of the iconic moments of New Zealand’s politics of dissent.
      And yet 1981 also marks the moment at which Stead’s left affiliations start to unravel. It is commonly agreed that one can see in the anti-Tour coalition the emergence of an inclusive liberal hegemony whose formal expression would be the social policies of the Fourth Labour Government: the nuclear ships ban, homosexual law reform, and (most definitively of all) the 1985 re-arming of the Waitangi Tribunal.[7]

The Tribunal was first established by the Muldoon National Government in 1975, with circumscribed powers to investigate grievances held by Maori against the Crown. The amendment Act introduced in 1985 by the Lange Labour Government, empowering the Tribunal to investigate claims as far back as the signing of the Treaty in 1840, ushered in the contemporary era of Treaty politics.

And this is the united (‘PC’) front with which Stead, from the 1980s, will so steadfastly refuse to align himself. In doing so, and especially in respect of Maori issues, he reinvents himself as a figure of the cultural right.
      At the same time, and not coincidentally, he resigns from the academy. Or ‘expels himself’ might be a better description, thinking of the strange, apostatical broadside that he levels at his former colleagues in an Islands review in 1986,[8] and of the gesture (it could almost be a laying down of arms) with which he prefaces his wholesale critique of the Maori material in the 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse:

Even to someone now or in the future who sees this inclusion of Maori language poems as self-evidently right it may at least be of sociological or historical interest if I can succeed in digging out of myself why my reaction is as it is.[9]

From the mid-1980s, then, there’s a noticeable adjustment in Stead’s sense of his own audience. Increasingly he turns towards the ‘general reader,’ lucidly enough I should quickly add (since the achievement is not to be sneered at by a professional academic) to persuade Auckland University Press to undertake this handsome edition of close to 400 pages. At the same time he knows that in the university from which he has abdicated, leaving his corpus to science as he goes, if his former colleagues read him it will no longer be as an authority but as a symptom.
      Examined in this light, what Kin of Place offers is a sharper sense of how Stead has come to find himself re-positioned. In other words, it maps out the continuities between ‘that’ Stead (the eminence on the cultural left) and ‘this’ one (the isolated gad-fly on the cultural right). It makes clear that Stead’s position today is not the expression of some ingrained perversity or habitual nay-saying, any more than, as he has also sometimes asked us to believe, it is simply the time-honoured scepticism of the literary sensibility: ‘If I learned radicalism anywhere I learned it from literature; and what it taught me . . . was to question every piety, the liberal piety no less than the reactionary one.’[10] Nor should his status be blamed simply on a combative personality, though undoubtedly this helps.
      Instead, his current isolation can be seen as entirely systematic. It proceeds from his thorough and unquestioning commitment to an articulation of place and identity, inherited from Allen Curnow, of which he is plainly the most able perpetuator into the Sixties and Seventies. Stead, then, is not an habitual opposer: throughout those two decades he was more than happy with his pivotal place in the local literary A-team. His questioning of every liberal piety becomes apparent only when the tide starts running against him. And when this happens, given his pre-eminent status, his thick skin, and the fact that he writes as persuasively as he does, Kin of Place discovers him uniquely positioned to act out the death-throes of New Zealand’s settler nationalism.


Map of New Zealand Before I take up and develop this theme, I want to consider briefly the implications of Stead’s manner. By the time Kin of Place came across my desk, I had already been alerted by a colleague to the essay on Lauris Edmond. I was told I could expect to hear that prickly Stead persona, which liberal academics have so often loved to hate, finding new ways get under our skin with its egotism, its acidity, and its hair-trigger reactions. In these familiar terms, the Edmond essay certainly caught my attention. Indeed, a couple of weeks later I was talking my students through it (in a third-year module on literary feuds and controversies) as a handy way to sketch this abrasive sensibility which figures near the centre of so many of our warmest disputes.

      But returning to it now, I wonder if this stress is not misplaced. Near the end of her life, Lauris Edmond herself compiled an anthology with Bill Sewell entitled Essential New Zealand Poems. Their selection from Stead begins with a piece from Crossing the Bar (1972). Thirty years on it makes interesting reading, not just in light of the fractious history between Edmond and Stead, but even more so if we consider the problem of his current reputation. ‘With a Pen-Knife’ is Stead’s revenge on a high-school teacher, Tammy Scott — amateur flower-painter, curator of the school’s honour roll, and the author of a caning which the poet has never forgotten.

I used a pen-knife,
Hacked my impertinent name
On the top of a desk. STEAD.[11]

The offence was to use the knife as a pen. The poet’s revenge employs the pen like a knife:

He might have been a desk-top.
My pride was exact.
I would not go down
In Tammy’s book.
He would go down in mine.

Certainly there is something here of an ‘essential’ Stead as we meet him in that essay. There is firstly the irrepressible egotist (surely the only New Zealand poet to have inscribed in his own lines, on more than one occasion, his ‘impertinent name’ in block capitals), a critic who can never resist the temptation to inscribe himself at the centre of whatever story he’s telling. In his treatment of Edmond’s Wellington Letter this self-preoccupation reaches a new high-water mark. Given that the Edmond’s poem-sequence revolves around the suicide of her daughter Rachel, it seems almost inconceivable that the critic can produce a reading which revolves around himself and his own ‘sensitized’ feelings (290). Then there is Stead the indefatigable score-settler, nemesis of old Tammy Scott, who, not content with going these extra, posthumous rounds with Edmond, then contrives to spend his last five paragraphs digging over a dimly remembered spat with Roger Robinson.[12]
      ‘Criticism,’ says Stead in his introduction, ‘should seem to come, not from God, or a committee, but from a critic. It should have individuality, character, a personality, a voice’ (2). No one could accuse Stead’s criticism of lacking personality. But the trap to avoid (the trap I fell into myself when I visited this essay on my students) is to focus too much of our reading at this level.
      That a critic of orthodox liberal opinions, who by the end of the 1970s was the most commanding critical voice in New Zealand writing, should find himself re-invented (or should re-invent himself), almost over-night it seems, as the bête noir of the cultural left, plainly describes a trajectory that we need to find the measure of. That’s what I wanted my students to explore, but I don’t think I helped them by beginning with this critical ‘personality.’ The ‘Pen-Knife’ poem is thirty years old: its combative persona has been with us all this time. But what transforms Stead into such a symptomatic figure is the harnessing of this abrasive personal style to a settler nationalism in retreat.


At the heart of this book is the relationship between Stead and Allen Curnow. The most recent of the three Curnow essays here, a memorial piece from 2001, details their quasi-familial history: as teacher and pupil in the early 1950s, as academic colleagues in the Sixties and Seventies, as neighbours in Tohunga Crescent and in Karekare, and above all, throughout this, as writer and reader; Stead viewed and commented on Curnow’s new poems in manuscript, he tells us, for something like thirty years (141-42).

Tohunga Crescent: desirable address in the well-heeled inner Auckland suburb of Parnell.  Karekare: beach settlement on Auckland’s rugged West Coast.  These locations provide the settings for many of Curnow’s later poems.

And yet this information comes as no great surprise, since Stead’s debt to Curnow is apparent at every turn in his critical writing. Stead appears never to have fully accepted the need to step outside of Curnow’s mid-century paradigm, and this, in my reading, explains a great deal about the tenor of his work since the mid-1980s.
      Granted, there are intermittent gestures of filial revolt; these however are largely deceptive. The rhetorical framing of the earliest Curnow essay (1963) is instructive: ‘Curnow’s introductions to his two anthologies of New Zealand verse stand together as the most substantial critical account of our poetry so far written; yet that account, omitting as it must his own work, is incomplete’ (112). The only thing missing from Curnow’s account is Curnow himself, and this Stead can remedy. The tactics are similar a few pages later when he tables Curnow’s comment about New Zealanders lacking the capacity for tragic emotions (120), once more obligingly setting up terms in which Curnow can improve on Curnow: ‘What emerges from the struggle [of his then recent poems] is a kind of affirmation Yeats called ‘tragic joy’ — the discovery of the full extension of human consciousness in the recognition of human limit’ (129). Whenever Stead appears to break rank, then, we need to read carefully.
      He disagrees with Curnow about Sylvia Ashton-Warner, but for both men this is a side-issue, as the fragmentary, half-completed state of Stead’s defense of her implies. Fairburn, on the other hand, is not a side-issue: he’s important to Curnow as he musters his emerging pantheon. The effect, though, of Stead’s debunking essay ‘A.R.D. Fairburn: The Argument Against’ is simply the fortify the enclosure: by pointing out the ways that Fairburn falls short of the nationalist ideal, he leaves the pantheon leaner and meaner while reaffirming the terms of membership.
      The essay which has been seen as marking a decisive break with Curnow is ‘From Wystan to Carlos,’ beginning as it does with an explicit resolve to ‘discover another set of terms’ than those imposed by Curnow’s landmark introductions (‘not because there’s anything wrong with the [terms] we have, but because a new point of observation is likely to alter the picture, and surely it is time for a change’).[13] The change-agent is to be Stead’s version of modernist poetics. But even though the central role he confers on the notion of ‘composition by field’ encourages him, briefly, to favour James K. Baxter’s ‘approximations’ over Curnow’s forbidding ‘perfection of phrase,’[14] the mood is short-lived, and a resumption of normal service is already signalled in his interpretation of modernism.
      As Roger Horrocks has pointed out, the aspects of modernism which have gained the strongest footing in New Zealand have been those which are most readily assimilated by a governing nationalist realism.[15] This shows up plainly in Curnow’s introductions, with their marked infusion of Poundian imagism. And it’s equally clear in ‘From Wystan to Carlos.’ Someone needs to take up The New Poetic (1964), on which Stead built his reputation as a critic of the modernist masters, and read it with an ear for colonial centre-margin ironies. For what this would show, or so I strongly suspect, is that this by-now thoroughly canonical account of the poetics of the metropolitan centre is first modelled, here at the margins, in Stead’s formative encounter, not with Pound, but with Curnow himself. Stead is always trying to reduce modernism to imagism. Thus the modernist ‘theory’ which he imports in that essay as a cosmopolitan corrective to Curnow ultimately reaffirms its own point of origin: ‘one requires of poetry — any poetry — the real, the concrete, the particular . . . .’[16]
      For all this talk way back in 1979 about a new set of terms and an altered picture, Stead’s outlook in the most recent essays here (dated 2001-02) is fundamentally as it has been from the outset, weighing his subjects’ successes and failures against these measures inherited from Curnow and Pound. He hasn’t read The Vintner’s Luck because he knows it would require him ‘to accept the ‘reality’ of an angel’ (364). The more often Ian Wedde repeats his nouns, ‘the more abstract they become and the more tenuous their grip on real event and actual emotion’ (362).

The Vintner’s Luck: Multi-award winning novel by Elizabeth Knox.  The Vinter’s Luck is probably the single best-known work to have been produced by cohort of young writers associated with Victoria University Press, the journal Sport, and Bill Manhire’s creative writing school.Set in 19th century Burgundy, the novel has attracted certain negative comments for its fantasy elements and its internationalism.

      Returning once more to Curnow in that last memorial essay, Stead still enthuses in untroubled tones about ‘the human craving for the ideal, and the curative properties of the real’ (146). The news of Curnow’s death arrives as he is scurrying around in Menton, a French town which Curnow had visited, trying to track down an historical detail (some missing railtracks) that will make them both more feel more secure about the factual accuracy of a late Curnow poem (155). [Menton, on the French Riviera, was a some-time haunt of Katherine Mansfield, in whose honour a substantial residency has been established allowing New Zealand writers to work there for a year at a time.  Both Curnow and Stead have held the Katherine Mansfield Fellowhship.]
      Perhaps the puzzling moment, however, is in the essay on Lauris Edmond where Edmond is taken to task (gratuitously — it happens in a footnote) for her slap-dash botany: ‘Bougainvillea is no more ‘native’ in France than she is. It comes from South America.... There is another poem... in which she has a whau [an indigenous New Zealand plant] surviving, even flourishing, on a bleak wind-blown Wellington headland, which I think improbable, even impossible.’ (295) Students of local literary trivia will spot this for a replay of an ancient Listener storm-in-a-teacup involving Curnow and a certain wild geranium — Stead himself remembers it in the first essay from 1963 (129). So is it a joke, a flash of welcome self-parody? A fake ‘primal scene,’ perhaps, which references the persistence of a crippling debt?[17] Nothing else in this thick book encourages us to think so. A critical distance from Curnow is the single thing that Stead most clearly lacks.
      All of this might not matter so much, were all that Stead inherited from Curnow this obsessive referentialism. But what he also inherits is a profoundly de-historicizing fix on location. It is this, in particular, which is pulled into focus in the new collection. The title is explained in an essay on Kendrick Smithman: ‘Ken and I had “up North” in common. We had both spent significant times there in childhood; and when I wrote a poem about him for his retirement I drew on that common ground and called it “The Kin of Place”’ (240).
      In the same way the twenty New Zealand writers who are the subject of these essays become a kind of extended family, drawn together, the metaphor implies, beneath the sign of a common geographical allegiance. Behind this conceit once again there are strong vibrations of the Curnow anthologies. ‘In regarding a number of New Zealanders as poets of their country,’ writes Curnow in 1945, ‘comparisons are evidence only if they uncover an unconscious kinship.[18] Where this family of poets can be heard to speak independently to the same preoccupations, in the same tropes and images, a national literary identity emerges whose common terms of reference affirm a consensual common experience.[19] Citing, as an instance of this shared ground, recurrent images of coast and sea, Curnow, in an uncharacteristic move, even posits an imaginative identity between Pakeha and Maori.[20]

Pakeha and Maori: Post-contact markers of New Zealand ethnic identity. The etymological origins of the term Pakeha are disputed, and its political uses and valencies are still very up-for-grabs (see the conclusion of this review).Generally, however, the term is accepted as having originally meant ‘other’ or ‘different’. The idea of ‘Maori’ as a collective identity post-dates contact. For a more nuanced account of these issues, see Paul Spoonley, Racism and Ethnicity (1988; Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1993), 57–61.

      However, Stead’s appeal to place as a source of kinship is, if anything, more emphatic. Place in itself makes his writers a family. To speak in the first person plural it’s enough that we just live here.
      What does it mean to call this fiction of place ‘de-historicizing’? In answer to this it’s worth looking again at what came to be known in the culture wars of the Fifties and Sixties as the South Island Myth.

New Zealand consists of two large islands. The North is seen as more cosmopolitan: it has Auckland, the largest city, and Wellington, the seat of government. The South Island, which provided the scenery for The Lord of the Rings movies, is seen as more rural.

      The term describes, critically, the narrative of settlement which Curnow had extracted from the common preoccupations of the nationalist landscape writers (Bethell, Brasch, Cresswell, Holcroft, and Curnow himself, among others). Curnow detested the label, and it’s easy to see why. It was possibly not so much the South Island aspect — the demotion of a nationwide vision to regional one; Curnow contested this ‘South Island particularity,’ but for all his avowed localism he was himself an ambivalent nationalist.

      What really wound him up, I think, was the inter-implication of the local (parochial) factor with the connotations of myth itself — ‘a curious term for what is simply a way of looking at history,’ to which he added in a footnote: ‘Loosely used like that there is no mistaking [its] intention.’[21] And he was right. From the northern (and younger) perspective of someone like poet-historian Keith Sinclair, it was clearly not an accident that Christchurch [on the South Island) had emerged as the nation’s cultural centre during the nationalist heyday.

Historian Keith Sinclair is one of the writers most prominently associated with the critique of Curnow’s poetics conveniently abbreviated in the term South Island Myth (see Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, 1959; London: Allen Lane, 1990, 327-29).See also: John Newton, ‘Colonialism above the Snowline: Baughan, Ruskin and the South Island Myth,’
John Newton, ‘The South Island Myth: A Short History,’ Australian Canadian Studies 18. 1 & 2 (2000), 23–49.

The South Island’s much lower Maori population, its very different history of contact and settlement, and its vast open spaces with the habitat they offered for the acclimatization of a stark romantic sublime, combined to shape the South as the inevitable location of the needful, impossible task of staging settler cultural legitimacy. William Pember Reeves had put it more precisely than anyone:

We stand where none before have stood
And braving tempest, drought and flood,
Fight Nature for a home.[22]

As his nationalist successors refine this fallacy, displacing systematically the history of colonial conquest on to the intractable South Island landscape, their narrative of settlement emerges as the battle of man against the elements, unmediated by any significant prior occupation. The history of struggle between Maori and Pakeha is displaced by the myth of Pakeha struggle with the land, a struggle which is a ‘myth,’ not because it never happened, but because of what it helps the mythologist not to see. Or as Roland Barthes explains in Mythologies — writing, as it happens, at almost exactly the same time — the function of myth is to transform history into nature.[23]
      Of course Curnow’s own poetic negotiation of this history is more subtle than this thumbnail sketch would imply. But Stead allows altogether too much for this: ‘He made history over into poetry without averting his eyes from the pain and destruction of colonial settlement’ (132). Yes, I’m persuaded Curnow looked, and saw, but in his poems he looks away again, and seeks out strategies to make his readers look away with him. For his task, as I have said, is the impossible one of both facing up to history and affirming settler occupancy (writing as if ‘we’ belong here). I can’t describe here how he addresses this Herculean labour, though I have tried to do so elsewhere in terms of three characteristic tropes; these I have called ‘depopulation,’ ‘diminution,’ and ‘identification.’[24]
      But it’s a measure of his success that a writer like Stead should find his handling of these issues unproblematic, insisting that Curnow did not avert his gaze, and backing to him to the hilt in the dispute with Sinclair and company: ‘it seems to me not a myth at all, but a statement of geographical and historical fact.’[25] More than this, he carries over this willed settler innocence into the foundation of his own critical platform. Here he is writing about John Mulgan’s struggle with the tension between ‘men moving together’ and ‘man alone’:

This contradiction in the novel’s fabric of ideas is not resolved — merely patched over. I doubt whether it can be resolved honestly in New Zealand fiction so long as it remains a contradiction fundamental to our sense of ourselves — so long, that is, as our collective sense of identity is something imported, while our individual sense is shaped in childhood in direct relation to the particular physical environment of these islands. (174)

What seems to me startling about this passage, dating as it does from as late as 1979, is not so much the enduring attachment to an innocent, unmediated relation between self and location, as the fact that what disturbs this dyadic embrace is still conceived of here as a complication of the colonial centre (‘our’ imported sense of identity). It still sounds like Curnow in 1945, ‘trying to keep faith with the tradition in the language while [the] imagination must seek forms as immediate in experience as the island soil under [our] feet.’[26] In other words, Stead is still writing here like an exponent of the South Island Myth, still trying to introduce the landscape to the language, and still apparently deaf to the fact that the landscape already has one — the Maori language — and that ‘our collective identity’ lies somewhere on the other side of everything which its priority implies.
      Curnow, of course, has by this stage moved on (he had moved on, in fact, by the time that time Stead published his first major essay on him in 1963). The task of defending his critical positions devolves to Stead; whether it be answering Sinclair and Johnson, recalibrating Mulgan, or wading into Baxter, Stead comes to sound more like Curnow than Curnow. And this, as I have been trying to make clear, is a decidedly mixed blessing. Stead inherits the family firm: for a while, then, it gives him a solid place to speak from and a secure set of plain-speaking principles with which to adjudicate and evaluate. But he will also be that scion who betrays the family secret, and who then finds himself held accountable for the family debt.
      This reckoning is recorded here in the mid-Eighties essays on Hulme and Ihimaera, which dramatise in their recalcitrant tones what this nationalism has always been at pains to conceal: that ‘we’ can’t ground a common identity in place until we negotiate a history, not just of our respective (different) relationships to that place, but of our relationship with one another in respect to that place.
      The review-article from 1985 on the Maori writer Keri Hulme’s Booker-Prize-winning novel the bone people contains some appreciative and perceptive paragraphs, along with some defensible criticisms. But its final gesture is insinuating and unanswerable. Using the novel’s violence to impute to the work a kind of unspeakable perversity — ‘something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric’ (344) — Stead both declines to elaborate further and invites us to accept as a clinching argument a certain ‘bitter after-taste’ that his own palate recoils from. Certainly questions of violence and complicity are fundamental to the novel’s effect, but to name this is not yet to analyse it, let alone to justify a moral judgement based on it. This judgement, however, is not as insulting as the contextual discriminations which precede the review itself.
      Here, apropos of the Pegasus Award (an award for Maori literature, won by this novel in 1984),[27] Stead presumes to tell us what Maori writing should be, what a Maori writer should be, and even, finally, what a Maori should be; hence, ‘The bone people. . . is a novel by a Pakeha which has won an award intended for a Maori’ (340). What disfigures Stead’s writing on Maori — I am thinking of the pieces reprinted here, and of his Landfall review of the 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse — is what seems to be the sheer inability to recognise that a changing cultural context is putting work into the mix which his inherited critical principles and his accreditation as a writer and former poet-professor no longer adequately equip him to pass summary judgement upon.
      Already implicit in the piece on the bone people, and then quite unmistakable in the 1986 review of Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch, is a critical structure of address which closes out a Maori audience. Addressing himself to the readers of the London Review of Books, Stead assumes the license of a metropolitan height and distance, mocking with an almost Cresswellian[28] condescension his country’s petty bicultural strivings at the other end of the telescope:

. . . great importance is now given to a revival of Maori language and culture. These, it is thought, will bring new pride, a sense of identity, and hope. New Zealand resounds with the rhythmic stamp of the haka, the swirl of grass skirts, the twirl of the poi, the knock of the wood-carver’s hammer, and the tirelessly repeated wail of the karanga. (332)

Maori, it is clear, are not a partner to be negotiated with, but an other to be patronised for the amusement of a metropolitan audience. On the sale of Maori land, for example: ‘Their sense of its spiritual value is always sharpest once the material value has been realized . . .’ (331). London, of course, has heard all this before; Victorian drawing-rooms no doubt ‘resounded’ with it. But republished later, here in New Zealand, with original date-stamp and sight-lines still showing, the outcome seems not just divisive but deeply parochial.
      It’s as if the demand that Maori be acknowledged — that is, not simply spoken about but spoken to — had caused Stead to lose his critical bearings. The effect in this review is simply to bar the way to its content — that is, to Stead’s criticisms. Approaching the work by this contemptuous route, Stead gives the impression of attacking Ihimaera as Maori. The problems this presents are no longer about reading. They are about respect.
      If we think of Curnow as a figurative parent, then the other key figure in this family drama is, of course, James K. Baxter. And here too, in a different way, we can see the trouble that Stead has in re-setting his critical compass in a decolonizing environment.

James K. Baxter (1926–1972) — poet, critic, and guru, Baxter published more than thirty books of poetry before his death at the age of 46. He opposed Western materialism, and advocated social change and the spiritual values of Catholic faith and Maori culture. Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River, was the site of the celebrated bi-cultural commune established by Baxter near the end of his life. Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament are among the Baxter texts which chronicle this phase.

Baxter, older by six years than Stead, and who begins by rehearsing in some of his best-known early poems the familiar gestures of the South Island Myth, will eventually discover in the Jerusalem period the exit from its parochialism that will put mid-century nationalism in perspective. Stead is at his most disappointing on Baxter, not when berating him in Curnowesque terms in the early review of In Fires of No Return, but when trying to be appreciative of these late poems following Baxter’s death. The Jerusalem Sonnets, as he justly points out, are difficult to talk about, but particularly so in the limited vocabulary of Stead’s new-critical formalism.

      Their difficulty is that produced by the best of the confessional poets, in whose company I think the late Baxter belongs, in that they challenge the determination of academic criticism of the Fifties and Sixties to safely confine the scope of its inquiry to ‘the text in itself.’ Stead comes close to acknowledging the problem when he pauses to draw breath after close-reading his way through the first two sonnets.

But to go on dealing particularly with poems of this kind may be an evasion of a more general question which I now put to myself: ‘Doesn’t a set of doctrines and beliefs which you yourself find at least false and possibly repugnant lie behind these poems? In your enjoyment of the poems aren’t you ignoring an essential part of their meaning?’
      My answer to this is that I’m not concerned with what lies behind the poems but with what is in them. I ignore nothing that is there and I find nothing untrue or repugnant. (317)

These ‘doctrines and beliefs’ which Stead finds ‘false and possibly repugnant’ refer to Baxter’s Catholicism rather than his Maoritanga. But the latter, too, is bracketed off, no less surely and to Stead’s greater cost. Issues press in from ‘behind’ the text which the critic half-concedes are ‘an essential part of their meaning,’ but they are given no hearing.

Maoritanga: Literally the term means something like ‘Maori perspective’ but is widely understood as meaning simply ‘Maori culture’.

The role of Maori in the Jerusalem Sonnets is not mentioned. Only in an appended note, on Autumn Testament, does Stead acknowledge it. ‘I have not had Autumn Testament long enough to write about it,’ he says, but concedes that ‘the Maori elements . . . have become a deep and genuine part of Baxter’s intellectual and emotional life — something new in Pakeha writing’ (318).
      Hurrying the book to the printers back in 1973, the issue could perhaps be finessed in this way. However, reissued, first in 1981, and now again in the new millennium, this unprocessed throwaway observation reads for what it is: a failure, not so much to notice this change, as to bring it into relation not just with his reading of Baxter but with his narrative of New Zealand writing. The price of this neglect will duly be exacted in the loss of poise, and the loss of at least one portion of his audience, that will come with Stead’s reactionary incarnation in the mid-Eighties.
      In an essay from Mythologies which I have cited once already, Barthes proposes that if ‘a little formalism turns one away from History... a lot brings one back to it.’[29] Stead is enough of a formalist to bracket off the cultural implications of late Baxter; enough, even, to recognise that you can’t fight the tide of literary history. But he can’t, it seems, summon sufficient detachment to see in his own brand of rugged individualism the belated re-enactment of a residual critical discourse that was nearing its last gasp in high-brow circles around about the time Stead bailed out of the university.
      The result, in the essays collected here, and elsewhere, is regressive, in my view, but also long-predictable. Stead’s (c. 1981) was the consummate version of a very late colonialism which could not yet see clearly why it wasn’t post -colonial. The unhappy mis-adventures of Stead’s later essays simply show us what would happen to any strong critic — but particularly, of course, one of Stead’s polemical temperament — who tried to prolong that nationalist impulse so far beyond its use-by date.

Postscript: some nationalisms

Having talked throughout this essay about the demise of nationalism, it may be as well to end by stating explicitly what this does, and does not, mean. The nationalism in question is of course that associated with Curnow and the writers of the so-called Phoenix generation, its historical centre of gravity falling in the Thirties and Forties. [This shorthand refers to the nationalist writers of the mid twentieth century (Curnow, Sargeson, Brasch, Glover  et al). Phoenix itself was a short-lived by highly influential literary journal of the early 1930s. The term ‘Caxton group’ (after Denis Glover’s Caxton Press) has a similarly wide acceptance and describes the same cohort.]
      It is Aotearoa’s version of what is referred to more generally these days as ‘settler nationalism’: the late-colonialist idiom in which the white-dominated former British colonies have asserted their cultural independence from Britain. [Aotearoa: Commonly accepted indigenous name for the Shaky Isles, the name is increasingly used today either as a hyphenated adjunct, or as an alternative, to (the volcanic) ‘New Zealand’.]
‘Settler nationalism’ has been often been referred to as ‘cultural nationalism,’ to stress the role of literary culture in particular in fashioning this independence, and to avoid the taint associated with the more brutal political nationalisms of the twentieth century, including Nazism.
      Alex Calder [30] has usefully dubbed our particular version of it ‘critical nationalism,’ referring to its noticeably disenchanted quality: it begins, that is, by down-sizing, deflating and de-romanticizing, so that Stead can rightly describe it as ‘a sophisticated kind of nationalism that could be entertained without shame or embarrassment’ (144). In contexts where the referent might otherwise be ambiguous, and in an effort to avoid the wordiness of ‘New Zealand settler nationalism,’ I myself have sometimes called it ‘Pakeha nationalism.’ But this a usage which needs to be repudiated, or certainly in this context.
      To call ourselves Pakeha is to name ourselves in the Maori language: to accept an identity which defines us in terms of our difference from the Tangata Whenua. [Tangata Whenua: Literally ‘people of the land’ (that is, in marae protocol, the hosts as opposed to the visitors); today the term is widely used to reference the rights of Maori as the First People of Aotearoa.] It is this recognition which our settler nationalism is determined to avoid; it defines itself instead against the otherness of Britain, and works around its otherness here in whatever it ways it can, principally through the alibi of landscape.
      The question is whether we have now reached the stage of dancing on the grave of nationalism itself (of all nationalisms). Or might it perhaps be argued that an alliance of Maori and Pakeha is essential to all New Zealanders in the face of a predatory globalisation? And if we achieved this, what would we call it? In any case, Pakeha must first ‘become’ Pakeha — not as a new kind of nationalism, but as a necessary (if not yet sufficient) condition of a real, negotiated kinship of place.


[1] Ken Ruthven, rev. of C.K. Stead, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement, Landfall 160 (1986), p. 509.

[2] C.K. Stead, ‘From the Clodian Songbook,’ Between, Auckland, AUP (1988), p. 53.

[3] See Roger Horrocks, ‘Off the Map,’ Parallax 3 (1983), pp. 247-48.

[4] C.K. Stead, In the Glass Case: Essays on New Zealand Literature, Auckland: AUP (1981), pp. 144-45.

[5] C.K. Stead, Answering to the Language: Essays on Modern Writers, Auckland: AUP (1989). The phrase is used as a section heading in the book’s table of contents.

[6] During the 1981 Springbok Tour, Stead was among a phalanx of protestors who invaded field before kick-off against in the fixture against Waikato. The match was abandoned — to the fury of the crowd, and the delight of the anti-Tour movement.

[7] Established with more limited powers by the previous National government in 1975, in 1985 the Tribunal was given the authority to hear grievances dating back to 1840.

[8] C.K. Stead, On the Margins, rev. of The New Fiction, ed. Michael Morrissey, Islands, new series 3.1 (1986), pp. 73-78; reprinted as ‘A New New Zealand Fiction,’ inAnswering to the Language, pp. 236-42. For reciprocal critiques from among Stead’s former colleagues, see Simon During, ‘Towards a Revision of Local Critical Habits,’ AND 1 (1983), pp. 77-79; Jonathan Lamb, ‘Risks of Myth,’ Meanjin 46.3 (1987), pp. 377-84.

[9] Stead, ‘At Home with the Poets,’ Answering to the Language, pp. 133-35.

[10] Stead, ‘Teaching English,’ Answering to the Language, p. 253. On nay-saying (or the role of the ‘unregenerate Opposer’), see Kin of Place, p. 288. On perversity, see C.K. Stead, ‘Fear of Flying,’ Metro 118 (April, 1991), p. 131.

[11] Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell, eds,Essential New Zealand Poems, Auckland, Godwit (2001), pp. 224-25.

[12] Stead and Robinson (Professor of English at Victoria University, Wellington) have quarreled over the secondary English syllabus. There was also a fracas over a comment about Stead in a review by Robinson in New Zealand Books.

[13] Stead, In the Glass Case, p. 139.

[14] Stead, In the Glass Case, p. 153.

[15] Roger Horrocks, ‘No Theory Permitted on these Premises,’ AND 2 (1984), p. 133.

[16] Stead, In the Glass Case, p. 159. To a New Zealand reader, this is unmistakably the language of Curnow’s introductions.

[17] In Ned Lukacher, Primal Scenes: Literature, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Ithaca, Cornell UP (1986), Freud’s ‘primal scene’ becomes the trope for a conjectural ‘intertextual event’ which is read as the text’s forgotten origin.

[18] Allen Curnow, Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984, ed. Peter Simpson, Auckland, AUP (1987), p. 65 (my italics).

[19] ‘Their comparative isolation . . . adds evidential value to any common characteristics which may be discerned.’ Curnow, Look Back Harder, p. 44.

[20] Curnow, Look Back Harder, p. 67.

[21] Curnow, Look Back Harder, p. 124.

[22] William Pember Reeves, ‘A Colonist in His Garden,’ Jenny Bornholdt, Greg O’Brien and Mark Williams, eds., An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, Auckland, OUP (1997), p. 497.

[23] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, London, Paladin (1973), p. 140; originally published in French in 1957.

[24] John Newton, ‘The South Island Myth: A Short History,’ Australian-Canadian Studies, 18.1&2 (2000), pp. 23–39.

[25] Stead, In the Glass Case, p. 251.

[26] Curnow, Look Back Harder, p. 45.

[27] The novel won the Pegasus Award for Maori Literature, a one-off prize sponsored by Mobil, in 1984. It then won the Booker Prize in 1985.

[28] Walter D’Arcy Cresswell (1896-1960), poet(aster), autobiographer, literary identity. A distinguishing habit of Cresswell’s splendid autobiographies (The Poet’s Progress, 1930; Present without Leave, 1939) is to refer his fellow New Zealanders in an Olympian third person.

[29] Barthes, Mythologies, p. 120.

[30] Alex Calder, ‘Unsettling Settlement: Poetry and Nationalism in Aotearoa/New Zealand,’ REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, 14 (1998), pp. 169-72.

John Newton

John Newton teaches English and Cultural Studies in the School of Culture, Literature and Society at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. His poems can be found in numerous anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1987), and the Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (1997).

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